Time for Grandpa Netanyahu to Defer to a New Generation

Gray-haired Benjamin Netanyahu is not what middle-class or middle-aged Israeli voters need today as prime minister. He must make way for younger politicians.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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The Netanyahus. He also has grandchildren.
Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu. He also has grandchildren, living in Jerusalem.Credit: Moti Milrod
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

The ties between grandparents and grandchildren is of huge importance. They contribute psychologically and emotionally to the well-being of both the children and the grandfather and grandmother, and serve as a means of support and encouragement. There is a clear correlation between the healthy relationship between children and their grandparents, and psychological health.”

That assertion, which appears on the website of Joint-Eshel – a nonprofit organization dealing with Israel's elderly, which is supported by the American Joint Distribution Committee and the Israeli government – is not controversial. It will surely sound obvious to anyone who has benefited from contact with a childhood or educational psychologist. Which grandparent would deprive himself and his grandchildren of the joy of such a relationship? It would be hard to find any justification for denying the importance of such ties.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has two grandchildren from his daughter, Noa. Their names don’t appear in the biographical information provided by his office, which for some reason has not been updated in six years. The reference to Noa is pretty evasive: Heaven forbid it mention that she was born to his first wife, Miriam Weizmann, unlike his sons, who were born to his current wife, Sara. Instead it states: “Mr. Netanyahu, who is married to Sara, a psychologist by profession, has three children. The Netanyahu family lives in Jerusalem.”

In a promotional video made by his Likud party, Netanyahu speaks about how, despite the demands of his job, he is “also a devoted husband and father.” A father, but not a grandfather. In fact, the premier's grandchildren also live in Jerusalem, in the Bayit Vegan neighborhood, an easy half-hour’s walk from the Prime Minister’s Residence, and less than 10 minutes away via motorcade that doesn’t stop at traffic lights. But there is no mention of Grandpa Bibi.

In the last election campaign, in 2013, Likud broadcast a video clip — which contained footage that Sara Netanyahu eventually asked the then-education minister, Gideon Sa’ar, to cut out — that highlighted the ties between the Netanyahus’ sons and their grandfathers, and the importance the family attached to the relations between grandfather and grandchild.

There must be a reason why the prime minister’s own grandchildren are being ignored. One possibility might be the age factor. If Netanyahu doesn’t want to appear as a grandfather out of concern that the electorate would prefer candidates who are younger than he is, he is correct.

The election on Tuesday doesn’t just involve the middle class, however that might be defined. It is also an election involving middle-age voters who have seen Netanyahu grow older, from a promising young politician to an older man.

Born in 1949, he is the first prime minister born in the country’s first decade of existence. Now the turn has come of those born in the second decade, children of the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, who grew to adolescence against the backdrop of Jewish settlements in the territories, intifadas and shifts in government control between Likud and the Labor Party. Isaac Herzog, the Labor Party leader who now heads the joint Zionist Union slate with Hatnuah’s Tzipi Livni, was born in 1960; Livni was born in 1958.

Other leading politicians born between the 1956 war in Sinai and the Six-Day War (Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon, Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, and Sa’ar and Silvan Shalom of Likud) are the young sons — nearly the grandchildren — of the country’s founding generation. Netanyahu, now in his sixties and gray, has gone out of fashion.

A natural process

It’s a natural process. In every other decade, a new political generation in Israel, representatives of which have advanced from more junior posts, reach the top. Or they have come from other fields, mostly from the army (despite the fact that the transition from army chief of staff to prime minister, for example, is difficult and as frustrating as Michael Jordan’s transition from stellar basketball career to baseball).

Until the Yom Kippur War, Israel had four prime ministers born in the 19th century. They exhausted their colleagues who were born in the 20th century’s second decade (Moshe Dayan and Yigal Alon), and ultimately made way for those born in the 1920s — Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, who were respectively 50 and 52 when they became prime minister and controlled the Labor Party for more than two decades.

The victory of Likud in 1977 turned the clock back to Menachem Begin, who was born in 1913. He was just 35 when Israel was established but was twice that age when he became head of his party and, ultimately, prime minister; he was succeeded by Yitzhak Shamir, who was born in 1915.

It was only the demise of those leaders of the pre-state underground Irgun and Lehi (aka Stern Gang) movements that paved the way for young Netanyahu. His defeat at the polls in 1999 actually paved the way for three prime ministers who were older than he was, but two decades have now passed since his first election victory.

Now he is on his way out, also because a new generation of practical, impatient voters has come of age, who probably smirk at a slogan such as “Say Yes to the Old Man,” because in the view of those who use products such as Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook, there is no contradiction between youth and capability.

In prior periods, particularly during crises, but with the exception of Peres vis-à-vis Netanyahu, the fact that a candidate for prime minister was on in years was not considered a disadvantage (e.g., Begin in the 1980s, Rabin in the 1990s, and subsequently Ariel Sharon). Now all of a sudden Netanyahu is Peres, at a disadvantage because of his age.

On the assumption, which would require proof, that a decision about this was actually in his hands, it hasn’t been convenient for Netanyahu to be a gray-haired grandfather. And there’s no use having him claim that he is more experienced than his rivals, because heaven help us with such experience. In an election, particularly this one, it’s not his experience that counts but the electorate’s experience with him.

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